Two and a half years ago, country music critics rallied around one artist’s sophomore album that ended up being a real breakthrough project for her. In terms of structured poetry and detail used to craft heart-wrenching stories that were often dark and bleak – all carried by a lead singer with a strident tone who could easily sell her stories, at that – Emily Scott Robinson’s Traveling Mercies was an album to beat in 2019. And it’s frankly no wonder that the project ended up on several “best of” lists for the year, or that the deserved attention helped Robinson land a record deal with the late John Prine’s Oh Boy Records.
And yet, coming from me, I know there’s an elephant in the room I need to address, in that I covered that album before it blew up (all by finding it by happy accident, at that) and wasn’t as initially wowed as everyone else, mostly due to a more bare-bones presentation and style that didn’t initially click with me. And I think what bugs me about that review – beyond the unintentional factual errors on my part and fact that it was written just a few short months after I had gotten back into writing and was trying to find my groove again – is how much Traveling Mercies grew on me beyond that review over the year and especially the next one, and I want to stress that I at least liked it as it was. I attribute part of it to myself; the older I get and the more I settle into my 20s, the more I appreciate lyric richness over grand presentation. And while I’m not one who ever desires to align himself with the critical consensus, I do wish I had written that review much differently.
But … enough about me. Any attention thrown Robinson’s way is justly earned, and in a year that’s felt scattered and divisive for what constitutes great new country music projects, her label debut is certainly one of the most highly anticipated of 2021 so far for those in the know, especially as the year begins to wind down. And since this is now the predictable part where I transition by telling you all that, yes, American Siren is absolutely a beautiful album that’s among the best of the year, it’s also an album where the beauty and richness came from more unexpected places this time around, of which we’ll explore later. Which is also to say that, yes, this time around I’m onboard from the get-go with Robinson’s style and delivery. But her writing here explores uncharted territory for her that Traveling Mercies didn’t quite prepare listeners for, and while the same foundational core for what makes her such a compelling performer is still very much intact, how it resonates here is much different. In other words, there’s a lot to unpack.
And for something different, instead of starting with the more obvious changes in instrumentation and production here, I want to dig into the writing head-on. While Robinson’s past projects contained richly detailed character-driven stories, one could make the argument that they were all self-contained narratives meant to stand on their own and didn’t try reaching for a more universal thematic arc beyond simpler connections of bleakness or a wandering troubadour spirit. And to be clear, they did connect on their own, hence why I’m also more prone to throw in comparisons to James McMurtry along with the ones to Lori McKenna she already receives. And yet, with American Siren, that still could hold true, but I think the connections are more obvious this time around, even if I have to admit that the more starkly religious framing with which she frames a lot of these stories is a pivot I didn’t see coming. From a priest’s affair on “If Trouble Comes a Lookin’” to how following a traditional Christian lifestyle pushes a housewife to her breaking point on “Let ‘Em Burn,” again, the connections are all the more obvious and defiant this time around.
Now, considered within country music specifically, that’s a framing device that calls back to one of the genre’s earliest traditions. And Robinson is the kind of writer and performer who is well aware of those traditions … but also seeks to challenge them or perhaps update them, especially when a lot of earlier country music also dabbled in sin and shame on the way to salvation. And really, it’s those concepts that truly form the project, making it less of a religious experience and more just a human one, where what you believe in doesn’t matter so long as you carry faith in something. It’s less the unexpected pivot I made it out to be earlier and more just an expansion of Robinson’s empathetic storytelling, whether she’s writing for herself or for characters she understands, and ones we easily could, too.
In essence, then, the main theme is much simpler this time around, subtly asking listeners to look past their preconceived notions of sin and shame and see the possible beauty within them – to reject admonishing what we don’t understand or see as immoral and perhaps see that a freedom of individuality is perhaps better, or acceptable, at the very least (and even then, there’s very strong parallels to Magnolia Queen and Traveling Mercies between the lines). Take “If Trouble Comes a Lookin’,” where the aforementioned hookup is made in shame and yet both parties walk away feeling closer to love and a higher power than they ever have following centuries of tradition, which shares a parallel with the ode to young love on the beautiful “Lightning in a Bottle” later toward the end. The former track is perhaps the most “controversial” song here, depending on the audience, but one that unfolds so naturally, thanks to Robinson’s unmatched knack for pure storytelling and progression.
And the thing with Robinson is that, like on her earlier work, that ultimate theme can manifest for her characters … or for herself, in turn showing how it could manifest for any of us, too. “Old Gods” is the easy on-the-nose opener that sets the stage, framed as a simple prayer for a distant lover’s safe return, but then that possibility of hope gives way to the more personal “Things You Learn the Hard Way,” where there’s beauty in living hard and fast at a young age when, ultimately, lessons learned are a blessing for who we’ll be tomorrow. Really, that song, along with “The Cheap Seats” and the second half of the album in general, could be seen as an extension of Robinson’s story and her own spiritual journey.
But more often than not on this album, finding that salvation doesn’t come as an easy answer for her or especially her characters, but rather as a result of spiraling past the point of one’s own limits, hence why I’d argue a lot of these songs capture the same general richness of her earlier work. We’ve all heard the country songs that explore a soldier’s return home and their subsequent struggles with PTSD and inevitable suicide, but it’s one of the last lines on “Hometown Hero” that really guts me: “Your kids are gonna grow up asking about you / How you could love someone and leave them and how both things could be true?” It’s quite possibly the greatest examination of that theme I’ve heard in country music encapsulated in one devastating line, pushing past that aforementioned ultimate sin and forcing listeners to understand not only the perspectives of those left behind to wonder why, but also the one of the person who was pushed to that limit. On that note, we also have “Let ‘Em Burn,” another song to frame itself around a character beholden to a life planned out for her by tradition, but also one she finds so constricting, that her own union with her God isn’t through peace but through a final blaze of glory.
All that, too, and I’ve only just begun to address the instrumentation and production, because in comparison to some of the more ramshackle tendencies of her earlier work, this easily the area to receive the biggest upgrade. Really, on pure tone alone I’m tempted to just highlight the bone-deep richness of the atmosphere and wonderful production balance that balances subtler and more straightforward moments in “Lost Woman’s Prayer” or “Lightning in a Bottle” with more soaring statements in “Let ‘Em Burn” and “Hometown Hero.” But that’s just on the surface, because this is the type of album that houses so many great subtleties even beyond the words said. I love how the simple prayer of “Old Gods” is melodically similar to a long-forgotten traditional folk song used to establish a link to tradition expanded upon later through the content, and how the thicker acoustic strumming gives it that windswept feeling to where Robinson could really be carrying this prayer across the sea, just as she hopes. And though “Hometown Hero” is carried mostly by its faint banjo, that ending note to mimic a soldier’s sendoff toward the end adds an extremely potent touch to reinforce the notion that the way this character died doesn’t define who they were on Earth or the honor they served with before their return.
But it’s more than just the slight instrumental nods that define this album. Robinson herself has always had an ethereal, soaring texture to her voice, but I can’t be the only one to notice how her voice is placed more at the front of the mix for more personal tracks on “Things You Learn the Hard Way” or “Lost Woman’s Prayer,” and where on “If Trouble Comes a Lookin,” “Let It Burn,” or “Hometown Hero,” she’s more centered to let her characters shine. Really, with the fuller timbre of the lusher tones here and the general themes on display, I’m tempted to unironically describe her presence as “heavenly,” especially when she’s got the same clear-cut tone that defines what I love about, say, Emmylou Harris and her work. She could just as easily be singing in a church, with these her lessons for the misguided patrons who believe they’re living in sin, only for them to find out that they aren’t unlike each other and that no one walks the road to salvation on a straight and narrow line.
OK, so maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I’m tempted to just run down the elements I like about each individual song here anyway, from the warm harmonies wrapping themselves around the thicker pedal steel and lively organ on “If Trouble Comes a Lookin’” that’s melodically reminiscent of a long-lost gem from the ‘70s. And that same warmth characterizes the gentler touches of dobro on “Lost Woman’s Prayer,” which is about two aimless wanderers coming together to commiserate, only to realize them finding each other is a gift itself, and that there’s no shame in granting a little grace on the road to where we’re going. The second half of the project may not hit the emotional high points of “Let ‘Em Burn” or “Hometown Hero,” but when it turns more to Robinson’s own story and experience, I love how utterly joyful she sounds communicating her message on “Lost Woman’s Prayer” or wistfully reminiscing on “Lightning in a Bottle.” And even earlier on “Things You Learn the Hard Way,” where despite the past hardships she details, there’s happiness in where she is now, and that’s not something to take for granted. Even the slow burn of “Every Day in Faith” highlights how even though we live every day unsure of whether or not what we’re doing is what we’re supposed to be doing, there’s no shame if it isn’t, and that all is not lost from there anyway. Faith is a mighty big risk in search of an optimism for better days ahead, but that’s why it’s called faith anyway.
This time around, too, I’m struggling for things to criticize. This project is just so utterly brilliant on every level, that aside from maybe Robinson’s higher register and flow on “The Cheap Seats” coming across as a little clunky in the same way “White Hot Country Mess” did on her last album, or the bluegrass-inspired nod to the titular place on the closer, “Old North State,” sounding out of place with the rest of the album, I’m struggling to call out any outright flaws with this project. It’s one of those albums that reminds me why I write about music to begin with, and whether you see it as a religious experience or something much more deceptively simple all around, this is an album that inspires and challenges us all to believe in something – to follow our own individualistic siren songs wherever they may lead, and trust that our upbringings or inherent views of the here and now need not define who we are or who we want to become, nor do they have to allow us to fear what we can’t understand. In other words, American Siren is an album for the year, and Robinson’s best project to date.
- Favorite tracks: “Hometown Hero,” “Let ‘Em Burn,” “Things You Learn the Hard Way,” “If Trouble Comes a Lookin’,” “Lost Woman’s Prayer,” “Lightning in a Bottle”
- Least favorite track: “The Cheap Seats”